File under: Great albums that signaled the end. Even in the fertile scene that was 90’s electronica, Orbital stood out among their peers as one of the very finest groups of the decade, electronic or no. Consisting of brothers Phil and Paul Hartnoll, the group put out two of the era’s defining albums – Orbital II (1993), also known as the Brown Album, and In Sides (1996). In between, you’ve got Snivilisation (1994), which is my personal favorite – it’s also rather acclaimed, but perhaps too surreal and odd to be placed on the same level. Though Orbital had the singles (and loads of ’em), they were first and foremost an albums band, making these longform, symphonic works that really were a journey from start to finish, the sort that their peers probably thought they were making when they stuffed their CDs to the limit. If I’d never heard of the term IDM – “intelligent dance music”, as it were, I’d think they were talking about groups like Orbital, instead of the glitchy, undanceable stuff that is actually called IDM today.
The Middle of Nowhere was the duo’s 5th album, and for once it seemed like they were feeling the weight of anticipation, as well as their own history. The former, because they really did work as hard on this as any other album they’ve done; in fact it may be their densest and best-sounding disc yet, which is saying something. The latter, because they’re really pressing here, and looking over the package you get the feeling that the Hartnolls just wanted to take a long vacation. There’s the cover art, with the blurred figure clearly walking away from something, and the album title, perhaps a statement on where the group felt their career was headed. There’s the track titles, with stuff like “Way Out”, “Know Where to Run”, and the two-part “Nothing Left”. The one with the most hooks is called “Spare Parts Express”, and it bounces around so many melodies that it may literally have been built out of unfinished tunes. The duo admitted they struggled mightily with writer’s block this time around, in some cases forcing themselves into writing a melody on the spot(“Style”). The album is 64 minutes long, and it doesn’t sound like they have another minute in them. But this is still a great album.
What’s more, it’s a great electronic album in 1999, the year after Big Beat was officially christened the Next Big Thing, when artists who’d been plugging away for a while like Moby and Aphex Twin were finally starting to see some real commercial success. It was a time where Orbital could’ve easily reined it in a bit and went for a big single or two, but Middle of Nowhere isn’t really that kind of album (“Style” was the single, for what that’s worth). It’s more accessible and it bangs harder than their previous discs, but like the great Orbital albums it’s all-epics-all-the-time, and each tune has a few different sections. In a way it’s more upbeat than anything they’ve done – “Way Out” sounds like it was made over Christmas, and sometimes they go into a full-on sugar rush (“Nothing Left 2”, parts of “Style” and “Spare Parts Express”). But it’s also dark and anxious, nearly industrial in places (the Big Beat-checking “I Don’t Know You People”, the pummeling bass on “Know Where to Run”), with vocal samples saying things like “It’s no good”, “I want nothing at all”, “Nothing changes”, et cetera.
All the tracks on here are good – on the classic Orbital albums, they usually are, excepting little toss-off bits like “Quality Seconds” or “Time Becomes…”. But for me this album is really about two sections. The first is the three opening tracks, spanning nearly half an hour. “Way Out” in particular is just gorgeous, about as bombastic of an opening salvo as you can imagine on an electronic album – perhaps because it’s not really electronic at all, instead using strings, Cake-style trumpets, and soaring female vocals. Right away, it’s clear that they are not holding back, nor are they going to stay in one spot for long. The next two – “Spare Parts Express” and “Know Where to Run” follow suit; “Spare Parts” is the band at their most melodic, while “Know” turns from a big-time thumper to full-on acid house.
The second is “Nothing Left”, a two-parter near the end. Long epics have always been key to Orbital – not just tunes like “Halycon” or “Belfast”, but tunes with several distinct parts, that build into something incredible by the time they’re over. I’m referring to stuff like “Impact (The Earth is Burning)”, “Out There Somewhere?”, “Are We Here?” or even the 28-minute version of “The Box” – the real centerpieces, blurring the line between electronic music and prog, or even classical (if you’re feeling generous). “Nothing Left” is one of those, in particular, one patterned off “Are We Here?”, both in using Alison Goldfrapp (and her superhuman vocal range) and in the way it holds off its main hook as long as it possibly can. So the first part is an exercise in drum n’ bass (same as “Are We Here?” was an exercise in jungle), teasing the vocals out little by little, slowly building itself up to the point where it can slam you over the head with the main hook, which is about as sweet as they come. I mean this is essentially building a 3-minute single into a 16-minute epic, but they do pull out all the stops again, adding new elements in each measure, breaking things down and building them up over and over again until there’s nowhere left to go. Thus, “Nothing Left”, as though the brothers are saying, “that’s it, there’s nothing more we can do” – the song (and the album as a whole, really) is like one big alpha strike.
Predictably, they tailed off after this. They began to simplify their approach and incorporate some elements from mainstream dance music, and their next album The Altogether had a number of tunes that were either straight-up remixes or relied heavily on samples. Their next one was The Blue Album, in which the brothers go into straight-up nostalgia; the album was presented as a gift to their fans (well, the sort of gift you have to pay for, anyway), from a group that was about to split. Neither of these albums were bad, they were just not in the same league. The sort of greatness that Orbital managed to capture isn’t easy to hold on to.